Interview: Tom Peyer on 'Penultiman'
We chat with the comic book scribe about his latest superhero adventure and the perils of imposter syndrome.
Even Superman gets a bad case of the slumps. He can't be everywhere at once. He can't rescue all the cats out of the trees. He fails as much as he succeeds. Damn, wouldn't you love it if DC Comics approached their Man of Steel from this angle? They may never, but that's okay. Penultiman is here to satisfy.
The new comic from writer Tom Peyer and artist Alan Robinson is a fascinating dip into tormented superhero psychology. We're all plagued by self-doubt. Imposter syndrome is real and poisons everyone at some point or another. Unfortunately, some folks in the superhero community got it real bad. Considering how most spandex types also mask themselves in a secret identity, the average citizen has no idea why they're slumping through the skyscrapers.
Penultiman appears to be the pinnacle of human evolution. He's a gorgeous specimen and loved by everyone. But he can't shake the self-hate. As such, he runs to his android understudy, Antepenultiman, for physical and mental relief. Their partnership ignites a whole other set of problems.
Brad Gullickson had the pleasure of chatting with Peyer over the phone. They discuss Penultiman's origins and how it evolved from a gag into a punishing meditation on super-heroics. We're already massive fans of the comic, and its content speaks to the very heart of our podcast concept. Superheroes should never be about the punching and kicking. Instead, they're musclebound titans who smash into the human experience and somewhere in the rubble we find a greater understanding.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the entire conversation on our Patreon feed at the $1tier.
Brad: In comic books, doubt and self-doubt, in particular, introspection, fear of rejection, imposter syndrome, have been explored in superhero stories routinely, but this comic makes those worries the point. And so I'm wondering where that desire came from - to really drill down into such a level of self-doubt and rejection.
Tom: Well, I started with a particular gag, which was this much admired, adored, really powerful, graceful, handsome superhero. And world famous. Like many heroes of the past, perhaps he has a robot that helps him and stands in for him when he's busy. So he's got to go do a time travel thing, and he leaves his robot in charge of being him and being his secret identity. And he goes away, and then he comes back a few days later, and all of his major ongoing problems have been solved by his robot. And he has this crisis, "Should he be doing it instead of me? Am I that bad at this?" So that was the beginning of it. And then, somehow, it spun into a much broader and bigger problem that comes from an earlier trauma, where he was rejected from his home to come here and become the greatest person. Because in his time, he was considered to be the worst person.
Brad: When I started the comic, I got the sense that it came from this, to you use your word, this gag idea, but I was surprised at how emotional I got the further into the story I went. Was that your intention? To start with this gag, and then reel us into genuine trauma, to the real pain of Penultiman, or was that a surprise along your journey?
Tom: There are some surprises along the way. The emotions you're talking about were helped and sold enormously by Alan Robinson's art. His art is all about facial expression, really, and he's so good at it. His characters are such good actors, and he can go from comic to tragic in a beat without changing anything about his style; he was perfect for this. And I think there was probably some improvisation in there, but once I made the decision, this was basically going to be a two-hander with him and his robot and his feelings. That decision was made pretty early.
Brad: In the back matter, Robinson mentions how he wanted to design the emblem on Penultiman's chest to not distract from his expressions and body language. So you get the P, you see it there, and it's a very hip take on the letter P, but it's all about the faces, as you're saying.
Tom: Yeah. He's such an emotional artist. When you first look at his work, you're not expecting it because it has this kind of a lighthearted look to it. But once you get in there, it's like a trap.
Brad: That's actually the perfect descriptor there - a trap. Because, as I said, I felt caught off guard as I was getting in there. And then when we get to the ending, which I won't spoil, but the way that it is resolved suddenly, I felt that clench in the neck, in the throat. I was really moved by the resolution, as strange as it is.
Tom: Thank you. Do you think they made a good decision?
Brad: I don't know if it's a good decision, but it's a fascinating decision, and it seems like the kind of decision where there are many more stories where this could go afterward.
Tom: Yeah, I've been asked about that lately. And this could end up being just a story that ended, or it could go further. But until a reason comes to continue it, I think we're not going to just continue it for its own sake.
Brad: Well, it is a perfectly satisfying conclusion, and the reason it's a satisfying conclusion is that it's not a period on a sentence; it's ellipsis. I feel like there's more, and I can imagine what that more is.
Tom: Great, cool. I love hearing all this.
Brad: So, you've written every kind of superhero comic. You've written every kind of comic book, frankly. You've worked on so much. And I imagine, with such a knowledge of the genre, superhero comics, that that can be quite helpful but also possibly a challenge when you are setting out to write something that is commenting on the tropes as much as anything else. What are the difficulties there?
Tom: Well, the challenge is always just not to be boring. But I'm finding it easier and easier as I go on, actually, because I sort of have a rule for myself, that the story is never going to be about, will the good guy beat the bad guy. And if that's in the story, it's going to be the fourth most important thing. So it kind of easily leads to books like this, which is territory that you don't really see very often, or maybe not at all.
Brad: Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?
Tom: Yeah, like you said, superheroes have had these particular emotional crises before, but it was never the whole point front and center of the story. So if you take something peripheral like that and put it front and center, or if you just take a small implication of superhero life and blow it up into something that's front and center, then it's easier for me to write because I'm not trying to write the same story a hundred times and make it interesting.
Brad: I'm curious as to how your relationship with the character evolved over the process of scripting it and seeing it come to life through Alan's art as well. It starts as a gag; what does it become after that for you?
Tom: I think I felt worse for him as it went on, and Alan's work helped that, there's so much empathy in it. But at first, I was very interested in kind of making fun of him, and then I did start to feel terrible for him, and I wanted a solution for him.
Brad: So again, not wanting to spoil it for the readers, but that solution, you asked me if it was a good one for him. How do you feel about that solution for those characters?
Tom: I think it could backfire.
Oh, damn. Could it ever.